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The Daily Briefing 14/10/05
1 Disasters, economics and hubris
Disasters, we've had a few of late. Rebecca Solnit looks at disasters in history and says they force human beings to live in the present ("crash course in consciousness") and that contrary to commonly held beliefs, people do not turn on each other, but succeed in providing assistance where government agencies fail. From there Solnit turns to the impact neo-liberalism has on breaking down this tendency toward social cohesion. "In this light, we can regard the notion of “privatization” as a social phenomenon far broader than a process by which government contracts are granted. Citizens are redefined as consumers. Public participation in electoral politics falters, and with it any sense of collective or individual political power. Public space itself—the site for the First Amendment's “right of the people peaceably to assemble”—withers away. Free association is aptly termed, for there is no profit in it. And since there is no profit in it, we are instead encouraged by our great media and advertising id to fear one another and regard public life as a danger and a nuisance, to live in secured spaces, communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from that self-same media rather than from one another."
Calvin Woodward in The Washington Post remembers back to a more optimistic time, when humans filled with hubris after a string of scientific successes, thought they might be able to control mother nature and planet earth. "It wasn't supposed to be this way. After World War II, nothing seemed too far-fetched for science, not once the atom was split and, again, not once men stepped on the moon. In one of the most enduring efforts, still alive but hardly about to happen, man thought he could seed clouds, make it rain reliably and put a stop to devastating drought."
And despite the number and scale of the disasters, The Independent says this is no time for compassion fatigue. "A vast number of children have been orphaned. Up to 4 million people are homeless. We must also recognise that when disasters afflict less affluent countries, their governments lack the resources to respond as effectively as they might."
REBECCA SOLNIT/HARPERS MAGAZINE
2 The Latham Diaries
TDB readers are such a savvy bunch, it's scary sometimes. So, many would no doubt be aware of the site Australian Policy Online, which offers a free weekly email service to let you know what's available. (But if you don't want another email clogging up the inbox, TDB does visit the site regularly.)
Apart from the academic policy analysis it carries, there is usually an interesting essay or two on offer. The one by David Burchell, a teacher in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, is simply the best thing TDB has read on "The Latham Diaries" by the proverbial country mile. Lovely writing, some genuine insights, and some revealing tales from behind the scenes, including one of his own experiences with the media as it covered Latham. "Peter Beattie responded to The Latham Diaries with the splendid claim that this was a book so truly awful that he refused even to open its covers. Lest others follow Beattie’s noble self-denying ordinance, it’s worth emphasising that many of Latham’s most passionate complaints have a genuine foundation in fact. Some of Latham’s colleagues did indeed treat him very badly, right into the 2004 election campaign itself, and they were indeed aided and abetted in doing so by the Canberra press gallery. (Kim Beazley wasn’t one of them, but it is at least arguable that he turned a blind eye to it.) Anyone who had friends in and around the press gallery in 2004 knew only too well exactly how the men Latham called the ‘roosters’ were indeed ‘background briefing’ journalists about the imagined sexual peccadilloes and supposed mental infirmities of their soon-to-be-leader. Some members of the press gallery, it seems, were genuinely repelled by this campaign. (This didn’t stop some of them publishing what they were told.) Subsequently they seem to have attacks of forgetfulness. "
And Professor John Quiggan, who runs one of the best blogs around has a piece on oil prices, energy costs and the economy.
DAVID BURCHELL/AUSTRALIAN POLICY ONLINE
3Bush, the conservative and Miers
The unravelling of the Bush presidency gathers momentum at an extraordinary pace, and may have reached a tipping point beyond which nothing short of a "rally around the flag" national calamity akin to September 11 will save his political fortunes. That tipping point may be the column, linked to below, by David Brooks, who is probably the most influential conservative columnist in the US (in part because he writes for the NYTimes, in part because his work has won him respect across the political spectrum - he is often described as "the thinking liberal's conservative"). Because Brooks (like all NYTimes columnists) is now behind the pay-to-view wall known as TimesSelect, it is published below interspersed with comments and links to other articles so as not to breach copyright. (TimesSelect subscribers can find it here.)
4 Australia fights WMDs
Mike Carlton in the Sydney Morning Herald has long dubbed our Foreign Minister "Downer of Baghdad". Should that now be "Downer of Beirut"? This one is included so that you know what the citizens of Lebanon and other readers of The Daily Star are being told about Australia's role in the fight against Weapons of Mass Destruction. While Downer says that "countries that ignore their non-proliferation obligations must be held to account by the international community", we couldn't help but notice that no mention is made of the fact that the US has not met its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to move towards nuclear disarmament, but is instead developing the next generation of nuclear weapons.
ALEXANDER DOWNER/THE (BEIRUT) DAILY STAR
5 Iraq, the sectarian flash point
Paul McGeough was warning in yesterday's SMH that the war in Iraq could spread across the Middle East an idea TDB first noticed raised by Amin Saikal in the International Herald Tribune on Sunday. Saikal has reworked his piece for today's Age, and it is a concise and readable account of the thesis. "The situation has become so tenuous that Washington and London feel that they need urgently to counterbalance the growing Shiite and Iranian influence in the region. Hence President George Bush's and Prime Minister Tony Blair's increased lambasting of the Iranian regime for helping the resistance in Iraq and seeking to acquire military nuclear capability. However, ultimately nothing will serve them well, unless they succeed in opening direct negotiation with the Iraqi resistance, and enlist the support of Iraq's neighbours, most importantly Iran and Syria, as well as the Arab League, to assist them in the process." (And there again is that suggestion that Andrew Bolt so hates - negotiating with the insurgents.)
The Independent reports that its Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has told a conference that what the Iraqis really want, after centuries of imperialism and interference, is to be free of the West. Fisk has previously dismissed the idea of a civil war, raised by Saikal, but agrees with him that things in Iraq will probably get much worse before they get better. "Fisk doubted the sincerity of Western leaders' commitment to bringing democracy to Iraq and said a lasting settlement in the country was impossible while foreign troops remained."
And from the week-end LATimes, a long magazine feature about the use and abuse of foreign labourers in Iraq. Though millions of Iraqi's are unemployed, the U.S. military requires that contractors use foreigners to work at bases to avoid the possibility of insurgent infiltration. But the workers, from poor countries, have little protection and few rights, setting up a system that has been likened to slavery. (Is this what freedom looks like when it is on the march?) "Because of the danger of exploitation, some labor-exporting countries, such as the Philippines and Nepal, have forbidden their nationals to work in Iraq. But labor brokers bring in such workers using loopholes in a system with almost no regulation. An estimated 5,000 Nepalese work in Iraq. Labor advocates say the practice amounts to modern-day indentured servitude, funded by U.S. taxpayers."
AMIN SAIKAL/THE AGE
6 Humans and God
Presumably, there is another television series by Robert Winston ("The Human Body") heading your way sometime soon. Professor Lord Robert Winston, to give him his full title, has a new book out, "The Story of God", and a television series of the same name about to start on the BBC. The Guardian has published an extract from the book (link below) in which Winston ranges from Darwin to Dawkins , from psychology to evolutionary biology as he seeks to understand the source of religiosity. "And it is easy to suggest a mechanism by which religious beliefs could help us to pass on our genes. Greater cohesion and stricter moral codes would tend to produce more cooperation, and more cooperation means that hunting and gathering are likely to bring in more food. In turn, full bellies mean greater strength and alertness, greater immunity against infection, and offspring who develop and become independent more swiftly. Members of the group would also be more likely to take care of each other, especially those who are sick or injured. Therefore - in the long run - a shared religion appears to be evolutionarily advantageous, and natural selection might favour those groups with stronger religious beliefs."
In The Times Magnus Linklatter looks at the continuing decline in church attendance (now down to 7 percent he says) and the relevance of religion in modern life. The problem, according to Linklatter, is a failure to communicate in plain language about issues that matter. "When it comes to grappling directly with the big issues of our time, the churches have been, for the most part, inept. Wary of the media, fearful of the accusation of meddling in politics and reluctant to attract controversy, they seem to have lost the art of direct and clear communication. That may be because they have been diverted by their own schisms, over women priests, homosexuality or sexual scandals. But is also because they have lost the art of plain speaking."
In the US, the problem - for some - is just the opposite: religion has too much influence on national life, despite a Constitutional insistence on the separation of church and state. Kurt Anderson in New York Metro says theocracy is on the march (he likens the US to Afghanistan and Iraq, although perhaps he meant Iran - Iraq was secular before the US invasion.) Anderson puts part of the blame on left-liberals. "For several decades the philosophical ground has been softened up by the relativism and political correctness of the secular left, which succeeded in undermining the very idea of objective reality and of calling a spade a spade—so now, in the resulting marsh, fantasies like intelligent design (or Scientology or feng shui or 9/11 as a CIA plot) take root and spread like weeds. Liberals pioneered squishy-minded indulgence of their key constituencies’ unfortunate new ideas, like reparations and criminalized hate speech; now it’s the right’s turn."
You will need to be an Atlantic Monthly subscriber to read this one, which is a pity - it's a fantastic read. Roy Moore was sacked as Alabama's chief justice after he refused a court order to remove a granite monument of the 10 Commandments ("Roy's Rock") he had installed in the Supreme Court building. Since then he has been touring the country on a crusade, and intends to take over the Republican Party in his state, and become governor. "Moore's stature has grown to the point where he defies the rules that normally govern politics. One consultant who has worked against him describes Moore's effect in an election as like that of a black hole whose pull alters the dynamics of races up and down the ticket. Because of the passions generated over the Ten Commandments, Moore attracts people who ordinarily wouldn't vote and others, such as blacks, who ordinarily wouldn't vote Republican (though he also drives away some moderate Republicans). His race for chief justice in 2000 drew more voters than had participated in Alabama's gubernatorial election two years earlier. One recent poll shows him running eight points ahead of the incumbent governor, Riley.
And finally, a Slate slide show on the architecture of the mega-church, especially favoured by evangelicals. Witold Rybczynski thinks they have little to do with either architecture or spirituality.
ROBERT WINSTON/THE GUARDIAN
7 Greenpeace in free fall
Greenpeace has no shortage of critics, most of them on the right. Unfortunately I can't tell you anything about John Castel, apart from what's in this article - he was once a captain of the "Rainbow Warrior". Castel says the environmental group is suffering from an "inner moral decline" that stems from its authoritarian organisational structure, which has long been a concern for some in the movement. The result, he says, is an organisation whose influence is in free fall. "Where Greenpeace was once open and honest, now the outside image is so hysterically managed that the three-page-long staff contract threatens large internal fines if anyone should dare reveal anything without authorisation. Recently the exchange of opinion and information between Greenpeace staff is being progressively curbed, as access to internal internet message boards is denied, limited and monitored. Greenpeace is now just another corporate body with a throwaway attitude to its staff."
Odd that the environment movement has gotten weaker as the environment has deteriorated. The Washington Post reports that international climate data indicates 2005 is likely to be the hottest year on record; Vince, the 20th Atlantic storm this year, has become the first cyclone to reach Spain in recorded history; and Reuters reports that the Amazon is having its worst drought in 40 years, "damaging the world's biggest rainforest, plaguing the Amazon basin with wildfires, sickening river dwellers with tainted drinking water, and killing fish by the millions as streams dry up."
But there is one sign of some good news. Wired reports that rising oil prices have led to greater investment in solar panels. "Solarbuzz, an energy-research firm, estimates that the global market for solar-power system installations generated $6.5 billion in revenue in 2004 and predicts sales will nearly triple to $18.5 billion by 2010."
JOHN CASTEL/THE INDEPENDENT
8 Introduction to the graphic novel
If you have only begun to develop an awareness or appreciation of the graphic novel, then you may have missed being part of an artistic breakthrough as it occured, according to Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker (link below). He thinks theoretical interest in a new form "indicates that an artistic breakthrough, having been made and recognized, is over, and that a process of increasingly strained emulation and diminishing returns has set in". HIs essay describes the novel, its attractions for the young and list some he thinks are the best from the genre. "Consuming them—toggling for hours between the incommensurable functions of reading and looking—is taxing. The difficulty of graphic novels limits their potential audience, in contrast to the blissfully easeful, still all-conquering movies, but that is not a debility; rather, it gives them the opalescent sheen of avant-gardism."
As ever with the Booker Prize, John Banville' win for "The Sea" attracted its share of controversy. The Guardian spoke to Banville the morning after the announcement for this profile of him and the book. "Banville is called a "difficult"author, a label he wears, after 14 novels, with weary resignation. His books plunge through weighty philosophical debates and his language is, occasionally, arcane: "flocculent", "cinereal", "crepitant" and "velutinous" all make it into The Sea, a novel about a man who returns to the site of a traumatic childhood holiday after the death of his wife. It was praised by critics for its poetry - a man's skin is so tanned it has "a purplish sheen"; a woman's post-chemotherapy hair is like "a cat's licked fur". But in terms of plot, suspense, character and all the other traditional components of fiction, it was, in some quarters, accused of having little to recommend it."
And New York Metro asked five people from that city to record literally everything they read - from personal ads to obscure novels. You may find this unrepresentative piece of social anthropology interesting.
PETER SCHJELDAHL/NEW YORKER
9 Dead, but they still hate Bush
Sally Baron and Theodore Heller both died recently, but their anti-Bush work lives on, which has John Nichols wondering if they are together somewhere watching the results. Baron's obituary read in part "Memorials in her honor can be made to any organization working for the removal of President Bush". Heller's included the kicker: "In lieu of flowers, please send acerbic letters to Republicans."
And since the publicity about the Bush administration hiring so many hacks and cronies, a web site, cronyjobs.com has sprung up. If you are thinking about changing jobs, you may like to fill out an application for a job working for the Bushies. (Or just for the fun of it.)
JOHN NICHOLS/THE NATION